In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is brought before a Bolshevik tribunal and found guilty of the crime of being an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’. Once a recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt, the Count is now considered a Former Person and is sentenced to live out the rest of his days under house arrest in his current place of residence, Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Forced to leave his luxury suite and move his possessions to a tiny room in the attic, the Count refuses to let his spirit be broken and decides to make the best of his situation, continuing with his daily routines as far as he is able without leaving the building.
With the help of Nina, a nine-year-old girl in a yellow dress, the Count explores the hidden corridors, rooms and staircases of this magnificent old building, and later he finds some fulfilment in working as a waiter at the hotel’s grandest restaurant, the Boyarsky. Although it’s never nice to lose one’s freedom, there are certainly worse places to be held prisoner than the Metropol Hotel. But what truly sustains the Count as the years and decades go by are the friendships he forms with the other hotel employees, guests and visitors.
The Count develops a close bond with Emile and Andrey, the two men who work alongside him in the restaurant, he embarks on a romance with a glamorous actress, comes to value the help and advice of the hotel seamstress, and debates politics, poetry and philosophy with friends old and new. But the most moving of his relationships, in my opinion, is the one with Sofia, who comes to the Metropol as a child and grows to think of the Count as a father. The Count is an educated, cultured, intelligent man, but he also has a good imagination and a playful sense of humour and I loved watching as he and Sofia devised their own games to entertain themselves and help pass the time.
Spending most of his adult life under house arrest, the Count is largely insulated from whatever is happening in the outside world, but through the people who pass in and out of his life he is able to keep up with current affairs. This allows the author to provide the reader with some commentary on Soviet-era Russia and to put the Count’s story into historical context. The balance between the political and the personal is about right and despite the length of the book, I was never bored.
I had been looking forward to reading A Gentleman in Moscow since seeing it appear on several people’s best-of-year lists at the end of 2016. Now that I’ve had the chance to read it for myself, I can understand all the praise that has been bestowed on it and although I don’t think I would describe it as an absolute favourite, I did find it a lovely, enjoyable story. I loved getting to know the Count and I’m sure that if you choose to read this book you’ll love him too.